Most experts believe that the English language has about one million words. Difficult to determine and not easy to agree on, the problem rests in defining what represents a discrete “word.” It’s important to remember that this number includes different forms of the same word, or lemmas, e.g., run, running, ran, plus archaic words not commonly used in modern English. The Oxford English Dictionary lists a mere 171,476 words that are in current use.
Besides word counting, for individuals there’s a distinction between receptive knowledge — referring to our passive vocabulary, and productive or active knowledge — words we use when speaking and writing. As a rule of thumb, our receptive vocabulary is at least twice the size of our productive vocabulary.
Studies show that the average native English speaker knows about 20,000 words with a university-educated person knowing around 40,000 words. When speaking and writing (emails, letters, notes, etc.) this goes down to about 5,000 very common words that are used repeatedly.
Building vocabulary skills is a priority for many native speakers and non-native learners of English alike. The benefits include social and professional mobility as well as cognitive improvement. If you teach English as a foreign language, or you’re looking to expand your horizons abroad, check out the article, How to Teach English to Kids, from IELTS Podcast, a company dedicated to helping ESL students improve their reading, writing, and speaking skills.
Try this Ghent University (Belgium) online to test to estimate your English vocabulary size. Good luck! If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in the history of American spelling bees, or how American and British English diverged over the centuries!
Stories for Young Readers is a graded textbook series designed to extend students’ skills and interest in developing their ability to communicate in English. To learn more, visit Kinney Brothers Publishing or check out all the textbook downloads from Donald’s English Classroom.